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VOL. 124 | NO. 149 | Friday, July 31, 2009

Herenton Prepares For Next Political Chapter

By Andy Meek

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MOVING ON: Willie Herenton moved from City Hall to the campaign trail Thursday, when his retirement became official. He is preparing for a run for the 9th Congressional District seat held by Steve Cohen. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Retirement may be upon him, but he won’t be spending hours at the golf course, adding Hawaiian shirts to his wardrobe or hitting the road for long delayed vacations.

Now that Willie Herenton has driven out of the City Hall garage for the last time, he’s preparing to channel all his stamina, his unique status as the city’s first black mayor and a deep competitive streak into a new brand of politics.

Moving on

Like Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith, Herenton wants to go to Washington, too, and he wants to do it by snatching victory from incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in next year’s Democratic primary for the 9th Congressional District seat. Herenton’s longtime friend and current Shelby County Commission member Sidney Chism, who will manage the campaign, said the five-term mayor “wants this seat bad.”

One thing Herenton no longer wanted badly was the mayoral seat he’s held and defended for 17 years. The job became what he has called “routine,” and Herenton said he eventually lost his zeal. Announcing his retirement in June, he couldn’t resist chiding the media for portraying the move as a surprise.

“All people have to do is listen to me,” Herenton said, and his claim that he’d dropped enough signals of his discontent is, in retrospect, hard to argue.

“(Herenton) doesn’t need any fire in this race (for the 9th Congressional seat). …The game plan is educating the people in the 9th Congressional District on the reason that seat was established and the reason we need it back. And we’re going to take it back.”
– Sidney Chism
Shelby County Commission member and manager of Herenton’s congressional run

In an interview earlier this year with The Daily News, the mayor gave a hint of what was to come when asked if he possessed the same zeal as the man who took office in 1991 on a razor-thin 142-vote margin.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “When I was (younger), I had a stronger zeal and a stronger passion to break barriers. My passion, my zeal was much stronger when I was younger, yes.”

And so it is that he chose to swap the powers a mayor enjoys – decisions on personnel, city contracts, budgets and the strategic vision of the city – for the ability to vote on sending troops to war and the way billions of dollars in federal money is spent. He’ll also go into business with his son and join an exclusive club – former living Memphis mayors – that has only one other member: Dick Hackett, the man Herenton beat in 1991.

Packing up his office a few weeks ago, Herenton glanced around the room as a reporter stood nearby. Eyeing the five framed certificates on his wall that certify his mayoral election victories over the years, he said aloud, to no one in particular, that he’d be specially wrapping those documents.

The first certification – the one from his historic 1991 victory – was one he seemed especially eager to preserve.

‘Taking it back’

Cohen’s consistent response to salvos from the Herenton camp has been to say his record speaks for itself. Lately, Herenton allies such as Chism have been turning up the political heat.

“He doesn’t need any fire in this race,” Chism said. “It’s going to be a cakewalk. Look here. Let me tell you something. In this game, you start out with the premise that you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, and the people you’re representing – or attempting to represent – feel the same way and you’re like-minded.

“So we’re not going to worry about any particular game plan. The game plan is educating the people in the 9th Congressional District on the reason that seat was established and the reason we need it back. And we’re going to take it back.”

The political vacuum Herenton leaves in his wake, meanwhile, is considerable. Roughly a dozen potential successors are waiting in the wings to run in October’s special election – everyone from a professional wrestler to Memphis City Council members to the current mayor of Shelby County.

And the field keeps getting bigger. City Council member Wanda Halbert put political watchers on notice late Wednesday when she released a brief statement saying she is “strongly exploring the option” to run.

As the race to succeed Herenton unfolds, symbols of a turning of the page abound and are likely to multiply. Don Tillilie, Herenton’s one-time development partner in building the Banneker Estates Development in South Memphis, has donated advertising materials and sponsored a backyard party for Carol Chumney, the former City Council member running in the special election who long has been a staunch Herenton critic.

Herenton’s former mayoral campaign manager Charles Carpenter is another candidate in the special election to succeed his old boss. Displayed prominently in some of his advertising is the phrase “A New Beginning.”

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